Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Thoughts on the Consolidation of Independent Print Media, and My Place within This Madness

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | June 07, 2007 8:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: capitalism, Carroll & Graf, Independent press, make/shift, Perseus Books Group, Publishers Group West, seal press, soft skull

There's been a lot of turmoil recently in the world of independent publishing. In January, the Independent Press Association (IPA), advocate and distributor of hundreds of independent magazines, went bankrupt while owing thousands of dollars to individual titles ($81,000 to Bitch, for example). Immediately following this announcement, Clamor, one of the most wide-ranging and inclusive of independent magazines, and Kitchen Sink ("for people who think too much"), one of the most lavishly produced, went under (LiP, perhaps the most politically sophisticated and intersectionally-engaged of new lefty magazines, had recently collapsed as well). In These Times, an earlier-generation lefty stalwart, immediately went from biweekly to monthly, and many other magazines shuffled production schedules due to cash flow issues.

Immediately following the demise of IPA came the bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Services, owner of Publishers Group West (PGW), distributor of over 150 publishers (Grove, Avalon, Soft Skull, McSweeney's, and Cleis, just to name a few). PGW was perhaps the largest distributor of independent publishers (the other distributor of comparable size is Consortium, purchased by Perseus Book Group in 2006 -- Perseus is a medium-sized publisher that consists of a number of imprints that were originally separate publishers).

Okay, let me state here that I'm not exactly a publishing industry insider, so if I get some details wrong then just give me a six-figure check and call me boss (I mean, feel free to correct me). And before I get lost in all of these specifics, let me explain why I'm talking about any of this: distributors are crucial to the success of independent publishers and publications -- you can put out something amazing, but if it doesn't get into stores then no one will see it. Of course, there are tons of incredibly valuable, innovative and dynamic publications that have no interest in large-scale distribution, but for those that do, the distributor can make or break the publisher or publication.

I imagine that it goes without saying that I'm interested in the survival of the independent press because it's one of the few places where I can find any inspiration, knowledge, challenge or critical engagement that might give me the tiniest shred of hope. Of course, I've also been following all of this bankruptcy, corruption and consolidation because I've written for numerous independent magazines and newspapers, including Bitch, Clamor, Punk Planet, Tikkun, Make/shift, Lambda Book Report, Maximumrocknroll, Gay and Lesbian Review, Heeb, LiP, Slingshot, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian (many of which were distributed at one point by the Independent Press Association -- or Big Top, its predecessor). And, of course, I write books and edit anthologies that are brought out into the world by independent publishers: Seal, Soft Skull, Suspect Thoughts, and Haworth (and soon City Lights).

My last two publishers, Seal and Soft Skull, were distributed by Publishers Group West, and both have gone through dramatic changes since the PGW bankruptcy. Seal is an imprint of Avalon Publishing, and after the PGW bankruptcy, Avalon was immediately snapped up by Perseus, a publisher similar to Avalon (purchaser of several smaller presses that became imprints of a larger company). This announcement happened within a week of the PGW bankruptcy, so obviously it was an insider deal arranged ahead of time.

But all appeared to be fine for Seal, publisher of my most recent anthology, Nobody Passes. But get this wacky switcheroo -- Charlie Winton, Chairman of Avalon (and original founder of PGW!) -- leaves Avalon, and joins forces with Jack Shoemaker, founder of Counterpoint (an imprint of Perseus) and Shoemaker & Hoard (an imprint of Avalon) -- together, they acquire Counterpoint and Shoemaker & Hoard from Perseus/Avalon, and then... they purchase Soft Skull (publisher of That's Revolting!).

But what does all this mean? Seal has already been gutted, their staff reduced from seven to three, and they will be publishing 15 books per year instead of 40. While I have been quite critical of Seal for their narrow, niche-marketed "books by women for women" politics and all the editorial battles we had over Nobody Passes (which I summarize in the introduction to the book, as well as in my October 2006 MRR column), Seal is still perhaps Slate actually the most visible and consistent publisher of a wide range of feminist titles, and a loss of 25 books per year is indeed steep. Of course, if a niche-market catastrophe like Cat Women: Female Writers on Their Feline Friends disappears in favor of the forthcoming Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System or Julia Serano's Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, that might not be a terrible thing, but Seal's recent list includes many innovative, boundary-pushing titles, and it will be chilling indeed when the more daring forthcoming projects will surely be subject to even stricter market analysis. Already, my experience with Nobody Passes was that Seal wanted to define it for niche-market salability before I'd even circulated the call for submissions, so I can only imagine that such pressures will grow more pronounced.

As for Soft Skull, things are a bit more complicated. Publisher Richard Nash will become Executive Editor at the newly-formed Counterpoint (where Nash will be editorial director of the Soft Skull imprint, but without any of the previous Soft Skull staff). What this means in terms of editorial direction is unclear. I can say without hesitation that Soft Skull's editorial vision over the past several years has been unparalleled, from the maximalist, erudite pranksterism of Wayne Koestenbaum to the fiery and practical politics of Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground and the humor, experimentation and renegade vision of The Amputee's Guide to Sex (a book of poems). Editorially, working with Soft Skull was a pleasure because they trusted my vision and supported my choices, but the more practical side of things was a mess. In short, I think Soft Skull grew way too fast (going from publishing 10 books a year to 10 books a season in a relatively short time), and they didn't have the ability to support their authors. So my first response to the purchase of Soft Skull, after the surprise wore off, was to think oh, now hopefully the second edition of That's Revolting! will finally come out (let's just say that it's a bit behind).

But then I thought about the editorial implications of Soft Skull becoming an imprint on a larger publisher. I began to wonder if they would be able to publish such crazy and intoxicating diversity, from Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change to Ronald Palmer's flaming formalist poetry (published as an eight-by-eight square!) to Josh MacPhee's Stencil Pirates (a history and guide to stenciling as public redecoration).

I became aware of perhaps the most shocking details of the consolidation while reading Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash's blog, where I learned that after Perseus purchased Avalon, they decided to close two of the larger and most extensive imprints, Thunder's Mouth and Caroll & Graf. Thunder's Mouth was a current affairs, popular culture and science publisher that sometimes took on innovative work like The Apocalypse Reader or the collected writings of performance artist Karen Finley. But what floored me was the closure of Caroll & Graf, a publisher that has come to publish more queer work than probably any other. Over the course of four years, editor Don Weise (previously an editor at Cleis) has acquired an incredibly wide range of queer work at a time when this is considered impossible or impractical on most presses the size of Caroll & Graf (and certainly on any larger press) -- from novels by luminaries like Sarah Schulman and Leslie Feinberg to emerging writers like Ali Liebegott, Keith Boykin's Beyond the Down Low, an anthology edited by Michelle Tea, an anthology of vintage porn edited by Simon Sheppard, and even titles by establishment figures like Edmund White and Dale Peck (as well as republishing out-of-print work and plans for a series of AIDS writing). In short, Weise/Caroll & Graf bucked the corporate industry standard that gay/queer work was no longer marketable, and the demise of Caroll & Graf is a big blow to queer publishing.

Of course, there is still brilliant work -- queer, feminist, experimental, politically challenging -- done by a wide range of small publishers (Suspect Thoughts, Semiotexte, Akashic, Seven Stories, South End and New Press come immediately to mind). And I can't resist plugging City Lights, who will be publishing my new novel! But I think there's no question that all of this consolidation will narrow the options for many boundary-pushing writers.

As for independent publications, I'm inspired by something Jessica Hoffmann, one of the founders and editors of the new feminist magazine Make/shift (where I'm now the books editor), said at the New York launch: "Capitalism tells us that we're crazy to start a magazine right now, but we're not particularly interested in what capitalism has to say."

Mattilda blogs at

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

No, seriously, this is bad. Like I have a Simon & Schuster anthology of gay short stories, and let me tell you, it seems like mainstream literature doesn't take to kindly to the intersectionality, or, more accurately, to upsetting the neat little categories that it puts everyone in. I really do like independently published books because they tend to think outside of the box, whatever box that is.

But is this a general consolodation of the independent publishing or is it just a rearrangement? Maybe some of these imprints shutting down or downsizing will just create space for new publishers like it's done for the independent music industry

Mattilda, this is a really brilliant exegesis of what has been going down. You know, by my nature, I'm an optimist (hence 10 books/year to 10/season) so I want to say, and I want to think, that I can keep doing what I've been doing. In some respects, I believe I can follow through in deeds: we're doing Douglas Martin poetry next Spring, and Erick Lyle aka Iggy Scam next Spring also, and we'll re-issue Wayne and continue to publish him, and maybe get that elusive next novel out of Eileen Myles, and try to catch some of the books that lose homes at C&G/TM, but...if I (and the numerous others like Don Weise) don't quite manage, it could be OK, if there is space (cultural, political, economic) for newer smaller presses to grab and successfully publish authors we foolishly fail to publish, thereby giving them the scope to tweak us dinosaurs...

Again, that's the haphazardly optimistic view. Your summary of everything though was just superb, I hope all the lit-bloggers link to this, I'm sure going to e-mail it around.

And let me say also, I appreciate the nice words, and respect the accurate criticism--I think you know it came from an ambition that said, I don't quite know how to pay for this, but dammit, this books needs to be published, and hoping little miracles would arise to support that, and they did, from time to time, but never quite enough of them...

And, though perhaps a public forum is a weird place to say this, but I'll say it anyway, we'll get that second edition of That's Revolting out, I promise. It'll have to be next year, unfortunately, we have to get the advance orders up, and it kills me, as it did you, that it wasn't out there while you were touring for Nobody Passes.

Richard, you are quick! I was going to send you a note about this blog entry, but you discovered it before I even had a chance... I'm glad you appreciate the analysis and critique, although I will admit that next year sounds like a long way away for the second edition of That's Revolting! If only I could sell Mary Cheney's child for that second printing...


Thanks so much for this thorough post and thoughtful analysis.

Things I keep wondering about right now

--How can independent outlets more effectively work in solidarity with each other? Clamor/Allied Media Projects was doing some really interesting and good work in this area, some of which continues post-Clamor (e.g., the Allied Media Conference happening later this month in Detroit - this year featuring what looks to be an awesome radical-woman-of-color-media-makers track). And there are efforts such as the emerging Media Consortium by what I'd consider establishment-progressive media outlets (e.g., In These Times, American Prospect, Air America) to work together to shape and strengthen a national progressive debate, though it remains unclear how this sort of model might include/support/speak to more marginal or radical projects. Meanwhile, there's a lot of mutual support going on among independent media makers in the form of ad trades, skill sharing, and more. (At make/shift, we've been overwhelmed by the willingness of folks at Bitch, Kitchen Sink, the late-and-lamented Clamor and Altar, and other indie magazines to help us by sharing ideas and other resources.) Yet I still feel like, in the post-IPA, post-Clamor era, there's a lot of room for brainstorming and experimenting to see how we might better work together across issues/audiences/media to sustain a broad, diverse, wide-ranging independent-media landscape as an essential part of broad, diverse, wide-ranging movements for social change.

--Readers need to support independent media. I'm not aiming to go all pro-free-market, make-what-the-audience-short-term-demands-or-get-out-of-business on you, I promise. I'm thinking more along the lines of INCITE!'s brilliant analysis in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (which just came out on South End Press, a radical independent publisher that is doing very exciting and important work right now; more on that below). As progressives/radicals, we each need to do what we can to support and participate in movements for social change in whatever daily ways we can and are inspired to. And as progressive/radical media makers, we need to be accountable to our audiences, the communities we see ourselves as documenting and engaging with. I'd rather see make/shift, the feminist magazine I coedit/copublish, supported by lots of subscribers giving us $20 each than by a few large grants or advertising vendors. Brian Dominick of The NewStandard--a phenomenal public-interest, reader-funded hard-news Web site that also recently folded for financial reasons --recently told me in an interview that he tries to support every independent-media project he can. "If I think it should exist, even if I know I don't have time to read it, I subscribe." Too few people are doing this. I realize that not all of us can afford to, but those of us who can need to start thinking this way about independent media -- no one else is supporting it. If we don't, we will lose it. If you have more magazines floating around than you can read, give them away -- hand them to friends, send them to prison library projects, donate them to shelters, to anywhere.

I am loving South End Press's Community Supported Publishing program -- for $20/month, you help a radical, and radically important, small press sustain itself -- and get a copy of every new title they publish. Bitch recently started a sustaining-donors program on a similar premise, asking people who want the project to continue to support it in a consistent, ongoing way. Those of us in a financial position to support independent media through programs like this simply must.

That said, there are lots of other ways to support independent media--participate in making it, help get the word out about projects you are inspired and provoked by, add your good ideas to conversations about sustainable distribution.

We need independent media to make social change. We need to work together to make it, and the world, sustainable.